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STN EXPO Keynote Gives Tangible Skills to Recruit, Develop, Engage Talent

RENO, Nev. — “Who comes next in your organization?” business strategist Meredith Elliott Powell asked the STN EXPO Reno audience on Monday during her keynote presentation, “Who Comes Next: Guerilla Tactics to Attract, Develop & Fully Engage Top Talents.”

“You need a succession plan,” she continued.

Even if a leader doesn’t believe a succession plan is needed, uncertainty changes everything, Powell explained. As the speaker during the Transportation Director Summit on Saturday, Powell discussed the importance of planning for uncertainty, and what uncertainty means in a business environment.


Related: Transportation Directors Trained on Leadership in Uncertain Times


When discussing succession planning, Powell said it’s about creating a passionate and committed team, that is dedicated to the growth of the organization. She said it’s about being able to answer, “Who comes next,” which happens to also be the title of one of her books, as positions open unexpectedly.

She noted that society is suffering from the most disengaged workforce in history. In addition, companies are navigating the great resignation and the great retirement. “The odds are stacked against you,” she said.

But when odds are stacked against someone, she said, it creates the greatest opportunities. She said by the time attendees leave the opening keynote presentation, they should have a plan of action to not only build and retain talent but attract new applicants with confidence.

Purpose. The first step, Powell said, is to create purpose within an organization. She said purpose drives people at different levels, and while some organizations must dig deep to find a purpose, school transportation has it already laid out. “You don’t drive a school bus,” she said. “You take children to get an education.”

She said all transportation department staff should understand the purpose and the differences they are making on school children and the community. Purpose is bigger than the job description, she said, it’s instead the foundational piece in attracting people, and it’s the reason why people come to work for an organization and why they stay.

She said that while pay is important, employees stay when they feel the jobs they perform are matter.

Ownership. The second step, Powell said, is to give employees ownership or skin in the game. Learn to teach people to think for themselves, and lead through the power of a question, she explained. She noted that if a leader does all of the work for the employee, makes all the decisions, and corrects all the work themselves, the employee will never feel like their voice matters.

Instead, she advised that leaders should encourage employees to solve their own problems and help them grow. If employees don’t feel like they are a part of the organization, Powell questioned why they should stay. Give them ownership, she advised, and let them feel like they are part of the team accomplishing the task.

As an exercise, she asked the audience to break themselves into two groups: those who are high energy and those who aren’t. As a leader, she said, one can choose to pick up their energy or place it in check depending on the employee they are interacting with, as not everyone communicates the same way or at the same pace.

(Photo courtesy of Vincent Rios Creative.)

Performance. Powell noted that regardless of the economy and marketplace, employee motivation is the same. People want to be part of an organization that wants them to be successful, she said.

“We ask our employees to invest in us, but we need to ask are we investing in our employees?” she questioned.

The first way to encourage performance is by supporting employees. Do employees have the information, the skills and the resources to do their jobs effectively? She said most disciplinary issues at work happen because employees don’t understand what is expected of them. Instead of relying solely on the job description, she said employers should create a priority list for staff.

The second way is to hold employees accountable. Reward and recognize when a job is well done, and discipline when employees inappropriately “color outside the lines,” Powell said, adding that nobody wants to work in a company where rules aren’t laid out and followed.

It is better to be short team members in an organization where everyone is pulling their weight, versus a full team where there is dead weight, Powell said as clapping escaped audience members.

The first step in being a successful company is by fixing the foundation. Create a culture that people want to work in and those same people will recruit other workers for the organization, she explained. Powell said employees need to understand the impact of the job they do.

She noted that no one in the room has the power to engage people, instead, they have the power to create an organization so strong that employees will start to care and will want to work at that company.

Once the first three steps are accomplished, she said organizations are ready to attract new people.


Related: TSD Conference Session Discusses Leadership in Pupil Transportation
Related: Gallery: STN EXPO Transportation Director Summit held at Lake Tahoe
Related: Taking Care of People
Related: (STN Podcast E88) A Team Like Family: Meet the 2021 STN Transportation Director of the Year


Proactive. Realize that recruiting talent is a lifestyle, Powell said, adding that it’s not something that should be done only when there’s an opening. Build a strong culture and then encourage other employees to recruit people in their community who uphold the characteristics of the organization.

She advised the leaders in the room to know the type of person that is successful within their organization. She said to think about the best drivers, the ones who have been with transportation departments for a long time and write down their qualities and traits.

Find what makes the perfect driver for your team, Powell said. Know the characteristics and recruit for someone like that. She said to recruit the talent that organizations want, long before the talent is needed.

She concluded that while these are challenging times, the list of reasons why one can’t succeed will always be longer than the reasons one can. However, people who succeed, she said, focus on what they can control.

Create a passionate culture, Powell said, and confidently answer the question “Who Comes Next,” when it comes to any position within the organization.

Greg Jackson, executive director of transportation and fleet services for JeffCo Public Schools near Denver, said following the keynote that Powell was extremely engaging. He noted that building a strong culture is about changing a mentality.

Many operations across the industry focus only on getting drivers, he said, but that perspective needs to change. Instead, he said he transportation in general needs to create an inviting culture. He noted it’s about finding new ways and nuances to engage employees. Jackson, who was the 2019 STN Transportation Director of the Year, noted that across the industry accountability is constant, but the reward aspect is lacking.

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